Into the World--Chapter Nine: The View from Enlightened Self-Interest

Prologue and Abstract
Chapter One: Introduction
Chapter Two: The Layered Gospel Context
Chapter Three: Today’s Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Four: A Perpetual Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Five: A Primer—The Bible’s Broadest Theme
Chapter Six: The Voice of Conscience
Chapter Seven: The Voice of God
Chapter Eight: The Message of the Cross as Supreme Answer

Chapter Nine: The View from Enlightened Self-Interest

Chapter Ten: The Challenge from Kantian Autonomy
Chapter Eleven: The View from James’ Radical Question
Chapter Twelve: The View from Sartre’s Bad Faith
Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—First Part
Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—Second Part

Having examined the message of the cross from within the context of Scripture’s widest theme, we arrived at the following contrast:

…if one asks whether self-interest or loyalty in human relationships ought to serve as the primary motivation when those two basic domains of human value come into conflict, the question tears the human psyche in two. What is humanity, at bottom, a mass of self-seeking individuals, or a mass of individuals willing to sacrifice self-interest when necessary to preserve the integrity of the web of relationships that comprises human society? If I give up what I value most, I am a fool. The question is, at bottom, “Which fool am I to be?” The answer is determined by what I choose as my primary source of motivation, and that choice informs the core of Christian faith and belief. (Chapter Four)

This ties directly into the view with which we ended the first seven chapters: The essential and central role of sacrifice in leading a conscientious life expresses the truth represented by the message of the cross. Biblically, the tie is accomplished by the Judeo-Christian view that humanity is created in the image of God: If we are made in God’s image, then a false view of God gives us a false view of ourselves. The faith perspective derived from the theory of the supreme question, which we are considering, is that the way to correct our false view of ourselves is to correct our false view of God by embracing the message of the cross—Jesus as God sacrificed for love of humanity—as the truth about God. But subtracting the biblical context out of the question, we must ask whether it is true that a willingness to sacrifice egocentricity, for love of others constitutes a crucial determining factor for a person unambiguously committed to a conscientious life.

It is time to examine the dilemma behind this question critically and philosophically. We can begin by asking whether it is really true that the question of “whether self-interest or loyalty in human relationships ought to serve as the primary motivation…” tears the human psyche in two when those domains of human value conflict. If so, there ought to be an awareness of the dilemma that does not depend on enunciating the claims of the supreme question as derived from Scripture.

In fact, there is a general awareness of the dilemma, and the most common approach to it is to try to dismiss it. The formalized philosophical attempts to do so fall under the heading “ethical egoism.” A popularized expression of ethical egoism has become a doctrine of secular faith; that clever persons can always find a way to avoid the pitfalls that align one’s scruples against one’s self-interest. The idea goes by the name, “enlightened self-interest.”

Phrased a bit more formally, “enlightened self-interest” implies that there is a middle ground between self-interest on the one hand and one’s loyalty to the welfare of others on the other hand. (Actually, ethical egoism goes beyond that, but for brevity’s sake we will consider just the minimal position needed to establish it.) That middle ground would render the supreme question superfluous—or at least superfluous for those clever enough to find their way to this enlightened middle ground.

Let’s consider how that middle ground might be constituted. Imagine a society in which everyone is fully committed to “the requirements of conscience (or “playing by the rules,” or “commitment to others’ welfare,” etc., since we are dealing with a broad, background question at this point). If the benefits of living in that society were always found to outweigh any sacrifices required of anyone in order to maintain that total commitment, surely that would constitute a middle ground, and on a grand societal level too! Yet just as surely there is no society so ideal that everyone can be shown to be fully committed to, fully capable of realizing her commitments to, and fully able to benefit from her commitment to these moral desiderata. We can simply dismiss this possibility as unrealistic.

But is the standard unnecessarily high? Perhaps self-interest, properly conceived, can provide us with a middle ground without requiring a morally perfect society. Try a much lower standard.

If a society (1) benefits in a general way when its members are committed to following all the rules; if (2) the benefits of doing so extend to nearly everyone; if (3) exceptions where sacrifices are required to maintain the commitment are rare and not known in advance; and if (4) the society is committed to remedying any inequities which appear for any of its members, the situation would be analogous to a fairly administered lottery in which nearly everyone wins and few pay the price without gaining the prize. It would be in everyone’s self-interest—from the perspective of one’s initial choice to do so—to take part in that “lottery,” even though a few would probably become losers for doing so. There are societies, I believe, that make credible attempts to be morally propitious in this less-than-perfect way.

Granting that, however, does not provide a middle ground from which enlightened self-interest can overthrow the dilemma behind the supreme question. For a primary commitment to the equal moral standing of all persons requires that we be willing to sacrifice self-interest (as one’s primary commitment) to it. The problem for the advocate of enlightened self-interest goes beyond the fact that such a commitment is contingent upon the actual decisions of persons who can choose not to uphold their commitment, and far beyond the fact that there is no ideal society that can guarantee that a moral commitment will benefit all individuals in every case. The core problem is that if we use self-interest to justify making our moral commitments, we can also use it to justify breaking them. Accordingly, enlightened self-interest, conceived as a secular doctrine challenging the dilemma behind the supreme question, does not even address the core existential predicament that the supreme question poses. In fact, it can clearly be used to undermine a person's moral commitments (or redefine one's morality in accord with egocentricity, which amounts to the same thing for our purposes).

Granted, whenever possible it is “enlightened” to seek a middle ground between self-interest and one’s commitment to the welfare of others. But if one goes further and uses the idea of enlightened self-interest in doctrinaire fashion, it has no relevance to the question at hand.

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5 thoughts on “Into the World--Chapter Nine: The View from Enlightened Self-Interest”

  1. Tracy, the scenario you describe assumes that moral commitments are not reflective of any history, either personal or social. Since there is a history, which my enlightened commitment is part of, there is a natural tendency to maintain that private equilibrium and the social tapestry of which I am a small thread. Yet that "veto" option must be available for cases when we clearly determine that it isn't a fair lottery at all, just a rigged game of exploitation. In other words, there has to be a way for the average person to discern the line between legitimate and illegitimate sacrifice and relatedly what is or is not aimed towards the greater good.

  2. Hi Step2,

    I'm pleased to have you argue my side:

    You noted that "In other words, there has to be a way for ...[persons] to discern the line between legitimate and illegitimate sacrifice..."

    And if there is such a thing as legitimate sacrifice in this context (sacrificing self-interest to make the equal moral standing of all persons one's primary commitment), then the doctrinaire view that enlightened self interest can always be preserved in a way that eliminates the need for sacrifice is false.

    So you support my point with the quoted statement, and nothing you noted undermines it (i.e., preserving a "veto" option for unjust circumstances and including the personal and societal histories that often contribute to preserving the existing order--whether just OR UNJUST, I might add).

    I think my point was far simpler than you realized. But stay tuned--the chapter on Sartre bears directly on these thoughts, and brings in considerable subtlety.



  3. "...the doctrinaire view that enlightened self interest can always be preserved in a way that eliminates the need for sacrifice is false."

    Tracy, I did not see the claim stated this way in the post. Maybe we have different ideas about what enlightened means. For me, it essentially includes a social context and therefore must have an element of legitimate sacrifice involved as each person gives up a degree of personal interest in return for the benefits of community health. To acknowledge that is not to say that there is no self-interest involved, since living in a chaotic or unhealthy community is almost certainly going to be hostile to my self-interest over the long run. This also suggests why the community revokes to some extent the moral equality of criminals, because they harm the social fabric in irreparable ways.

  4. Hi Step2,

    "Enlightened self-interest" is the view that what is best morally is best for oneself, and vice versa. It typically includes the idea that self-interest is the best or most reliable basis for morality (Ayn Rand made that view popular).

    To me the view is naive moral utopianism, which is nevertheless popular precisely because it removes the really hard questions--personally and practically--from moral equations.

    Clearly you do not hold to anything like doctrinaire enlightened self-interest, so my post does not bear on your view--and your comments do not bear on mine.

    I do hope that finding yourself to be, basically, in agreement with me isn't too traumatic for you!


  5. "When asked in a 1991 survey by the Library of Congress...what the most influential book in the respondent's life was, Rand's ATLAS SHRUGGED was the second most popular choice, after the BIBLE."

    The Wiki article on Rand that quote was taken from also states that her THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS ranks first in The Modern Libraries 100 best Nonfiction list.

    The article also states--using a quote from an Ayn Rand scholar--that "'I know they laugh at Rand." referring to academic philosophers.

    I note these quotes to make three points. 1. Since Rand's ideas are paired with the Bible as respondents' major influence in the survey quoted, it seems that my juxtaposition of those perspectives in this post has considerable popular application. If I had looked up the Wiki article prior to posting this chapter, I would have included a remark to that effect. 2. Given Rand's popularity and staying power--her major works were written in the 1940s and 50s--it was important to include this chapter, despite the fact that it is--from the standpoint of substance--the weakest... And that runs into number 3: If I did not treat Rand's ideas to full consideration, that strategy is fully in line with the view that academic philosophers do not take her seriously.

    So I reiterate my view that she is popular precisely because her view removes the need to confront the really hard choices that moral contemplation can pose to us--personally and practically: when in a bind who wouldn't like to pick up a book entitled THE VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS?

    Enough said, though I would be pleased to hear from a true exponent of enlightened self interest.

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